07/18/2004 11:00PM

For overall fun, it's Del Mar by a pole

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DEL MAR, Calif. - A family vacation in 1971 included the usual places for kids to see animals in San Diego. The zoo. Check. Sea World. Check. Del Mar. Del Mar? Yes, this is where a young fan, curious about the sport from having seen it on television, became completely enthralled with horse racing. You don't forget your first love. Del Mar was it for me.

Back then, as family home movies prove, the hills behind the track were barren. Now, they are covered in condominiums. Seems everyone has caught on to the charms of Del Mar. The beach towns near the track have lured many year-round residents. Former jockeys Don Pierce and Fernando Toro live down here, as does former trainer Gary Jones. Chris McCarron was going to live near here, before deciding to go into racetrack management. Silly man. Laura de Seroux trains out of San Diego County. Even the other Jay on this page lives down here with his wife, the Hall of Fame jockey.

As for that first love, well, it became a long-term marriage. Given the choice, why would anyone live anywhere else? For those of you invading our space this summer, welcome. Here are some things you will need to know to get the most out of the next seven weeks at Del Mar.

Let's get one thing out of the way first. For those of you comparing Del Mar to Saratoga, it is hereby stipulated that the racing at Del Mar is inferior. But in every other possible way - from dining to lodging to entertainment to weather to proximity to a thriving city - Del Mar wins about as easily as Smarty Jones in the Preakness.

Yes, the racing is important. That is why Del Mar simulcasts the racing from Saratoga. You can bet the races from there, stick around for the live races at Del Mar, and at the end of the day go for a walk on the beach. Perfect.

Dining options are plentiful. The proximity to Mexico makes this the best spot in the world for Mexican food. Favorite places include Las Olas in the town of Cardiff, Alfonso's in La Jolla, Tony's Jacal in Solana Beach, El Callejon in Encinitas, and two terrific dives - Juanita's Taco Shop, a tiny shack on the coast highway in Leucadia, and Roberto's, a chain of low-budget eateries with outlets in Del Mar and Solana Beach.

Great seafood is also in abundance. Pacifica Del Mar, in downtown Del Mar, has the best combination of food and view, with the Pacific Ocean a few furlongs away. Slightly farther from the track in Carlsbad are King's Fish House, a large, sit-down restaurant, and Pelly's, a fresh seafood market that serves casual lunches and early dinners in an airy patio. For sushi, try Cafe Japengo in the UTC area of La Jolla, and Samurai in Solana Beach.

For Italian food, nothing beats Trattoria Il Trulli in Encinitas. It's small and noisy, but the food is outstanding. Vigilucci's, also in Encinitas, completes the exacta. Meat lovers who want to ease into a red leather banquette will appreciate Red Tracton's, right across from the track on Via de la Valle, and the more casual Bully's, in downtown Del Mar.

Also popular, and near the track in Del Mar, are The Brigantine and Sbicca. Milton's in Solana Beach is the best deli, and Ki's in Solana Beach the best health-food choice. If you hit the pick six, splurge at Pamplemousse Grill in Solana Beach, or Delicias or Mille Fleurs in Rancho Santa Fe.

It seems as though there is a zoning law in Saratoga that prevents decent, affordable hotels. In Del Mar, you can spend $300 a night for a room, but at least you won't feel like you were ripped off. High rollers will enjoy the Inn at Rancho Santa Fe, Lodge at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, or the Four Seasons Aviara in Carlsbad. More affordable are the Hyatt Regency in La Jolla, Marriott and Doubletree hotels in Del Mar, Hampton Inn in Del Mar, and Courtyard by Marriott in Solana Beach.

Del Mar has an outstanding lineup for its Friday-night concert series, beginning with the wildly popular Australian band Jet ("Are You Gonna Be My Girl?") this Friday. A great local club is the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach.

Fun spots for a postrace or late-night beverage include the outdoor deck at the Del Mar Plaza, Jimmy O's, or Axis Martini Bar, all in Del Mar. Singles looking to line up dates for the summer should check out the postrace party on opening day, held at the adjacent simulcast facility, the Surfside Race Place.

Sports fans can see the Padres at the new Petco Park in downtown San Diego, or Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova and the Williams sisters at next week's Acura tennis tournament at La Costa. If the kids are tagging along, head to Sea World, the San Diego Zoo, and Legoland.

You never have to worry about the weather. In Saratoga, the choices are hot and humid, or hot and humid with thunderstorms that turn the track sloppy and take races off the turf. Here, the daily drill is low clouds in the early morning, clearing by 10, a light breeze off the ocean, plenty of sun, and a gorgeous sunset. The track will be fast, the turf will be firm. Every. Single. Day. Let the games begin.